The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Encountering Christian-Muslim dialogue for the first time eight years ago was naturally a culture shock. Every young and enthusiastic activist owned a grainy, yellowy video with poor quality sound of a great debate between Ahmed Deedat and Jimmy Swaggart. As pamphlets detailing 101 contradictions in the Bible were pressed into my hands I wondered what these well-intentioned souls would make of the Christianity I knew. But for a brief sojourn with a group calling itself The International Church of Christ, prior to my agnosticism I had only ever known the Anglican Communion of The Church of England. Swaggart and his fundamentalist counterparts represented a creed almost as alien to me as the faith I was to adopt, yet everyday Muslim engagement with Christians remained focused on these Deep South stereotypes.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue is, in many ways, the perfect introduction to that other Christianity. Based on the proceedings of a two-day seminar hosted by Dr George Carey – then Archbishop of Caterbury – in January 2002, it stresses how far our simplistic caricatures of Christians are off the mark. While the seminar aimed to address how Christians and Muslims might overcome the obstacles standing in the way of mutual understanding, the book in fact paints a picture of a faith unsure of itself. Far from witnessing dialogue, we see that character whom every infuriated agnostic meets on his search; that bumbling self-conscious believer, so utterly apologetic about his faith and too shy to articulate his beliefs.

Perhaps surprised to find Christians and Muslims talking to one another, Dr Carey describes the not particularly unusual gathering as one of the most remarkable of his career as Archbishop. Writing in his introduction to the book, he acknowledges that Muslim-Christian dialogue is by no means a new phenomenon, but he believes the events of 11 September 2001 have made it ever more urgent. He stumbles at the first hurdle, for rather than overcoming obstacles in Christian-Muslim relations, he casts Muslims into the problem role. The Muslim, associated with these horrific acts, is placed into a defensive position to be interviewed rather than to engage in dialogue.

In a second introduction, Prince El Hassan eloquently rehearses that favourite Muslim topic of critique, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Unfortunately this has been so over-emphasized in recent years that the whole argument now feels stale, let alone irrelevant to the topic at hand. It is not all cliché, however: for dialogue to be fruitful, he suggests, we should put aside differences in theology and rite. This is true to a point – if the aim of dialogue is to discover how Muslims and Christians can work and live together then it is only natural that differences should be highlighted less. But what if the purpose was to convince the other of the truth of Christianity/Islam? Surely such differences are of fundamental importance.

It is understandable that Tony Blair, writing the third introduction as Prime Minister of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, should choose to do so inclusively; yet in the process of dialogue should we not expect the Christian to speak as a Christian and the Muslim as a Muslim? Straddling the two faiths in order to project one’s own views onto both parties cannot be exemplary of dialogue, but this is what Mr. Blair achieves. It is true that principles of tolerance and respect are vital, but should we allow him to set the agenda where issues of justice or liberty might otherwise figure as key issues as well?

The Road Ahead is split into five chapters, each containing papers by both Muslim and Christian participants. The first chapter discusses Christian-Muslim interface, the second looking at the lessons history can teach us in regard to interaction. After focusing on communities of faith in the third chapter, the discussion moves on to examine faith in the context of change, before finally evaluating the way forward for dialogue between the two faith groups. It is a positive step that the first contributor should be a European Muslim. It could be said that we have come a long way in ten years, when one considers the European response towards its native Balkan Muslim population at its hour of need. In a thought provoking paper, excellently located as the starting place for dialogue, Mustafa Ceri? considers the question of assimilation or of isolation in terms of faith, a point relevant not just for Muslims in the West, but also for Christians in the East, or indeed for Christians in increasingly secular societies. Like the Jews of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, Muslims in Europe today are forced to grapple with questions of integration or isolation and tradition or reform.

Later, Mustafa Ceri? pulls out the right threads once more as he goes on to discuss monotheism. ‘The doctrine of monotheism is shared by Islam and Christianity,’ he writes, ‘but the perception of it seems unsettling, not because of an apodictic argument but because of a dispute conducted in an ad hominem manner…’ We cannot conduct dialogue if we insist on skirting around the fundamental issues and who we worship is naturally the most crucial of all. Sadly, some participants seem not to agree, for disturbingly there is very little mention of God within The Road Ahead, nor indeed of Jesus of Muhammad (peace be upon them) – it is as if these main players are not players at all.

Mustafa Ceri?’s discussion of cooperation makes good sense and his historical overview of the issue is helpful, but it would also be useful if he pointed out that such cooperation continues today. Furthermore, in speaking about Europe as a continent of many faiths he could have been more careful about not identifying Christianity solely with Europe at the same time as trying to disassociate Europe from the idea of it being a solely Christian realm; despite the missionary zeal of some Protestant churches aiming to ‘convert’ other Christian communities to their interpretation of the faith, there remain sizeable non-Western Christian communities outside Europe. This too is underplayed throughout the book.

Responding the Mustafa Ceri?, Michael Fitzgerald argues that Christians and Muslims should seek to understand their differences in a spirit of mutual acceptance. It should be implicit in the idea of honest dialogue that Christians and Muslims retain their beliefs with conviction. He goes on to explain the difference between overcoming and understanding, which seems to be a statement of the obvious. However he confuses matters: ‘Such an attitude in turn implies that truth is not to be seen as an object in the possession of one particular group…’ Does it? Why must a believer deny his beliefs in order to engage in dialogue with others? He goes on: ‘…indeed, for Christians truth is best understood as a Person by whom they are themselves possessed.’ This is confused double-speak. Tripping over themselves to be accommodating to those who do not share their beliefs, this mode of thought actually nullifies effective dialogue; what is there left to discuss?

Nevertheless his advice on discussing the similarities and differences between the faiths is practical, although it seems to ignore the wealth of literature already in the public domain: John Bowker’s excellent study of suffering in the World Religions or Hans Küng’s Christianity and the World Religions to name but two. It would be illogical for any inter-faith dialogue to begin without a discussion of the key theological and ethical concepts held by each faith. Always reasonable and accommodating towards his Abrahamic cousins, Michael Fitzgerald offers another olive branch: Muslims, he argues, have suffered from being misrepresented as a monolithic block. In reality, both faith communities experience this as a result of projection from within as well as from without. As Muslims we often talk of ourselves as a unified whole, ignoring the internal conflicts, as do Christians in their engagement with the outside world. The Road Ahead is often illustrative of this, taking the image of Christianity for granted, forgetting that there is an Ethiopian, Armenian, Roman Catholic and Adventist Christianity beyond their projections of self. Michael Fitzgerald is absolutely right, therefore, when he states: ‘Diversity and genuine pluralism within both Christian and Muslim traditions needs to be recognized equally by co-religionists and by members of the other faith.’

The third paper published in The Road Ahead sits uncomfortably amidst its counterparts, a peculiar contribution aimed at a different level of dialogue. Undoubtedly well versed in conversation between the two faiths having spent forty-five years in the Middle East and the author of at least thirty books, Kenneth Cragg seems to assume too much of the seminar and as result fails to make any real impact. The theme of his paper is his oft-repeated argument around Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) post-Hijra mission and Islam’s recruitment of political power to achieve its ends, as already developed in his previous works. The point of this often-incomprehensible paper is what Christians mean by Magnificat and Muslims by Allahu akbar; in what way, he asks, is God great? ‘Islamic confidence in the rightness of political power in the defence and propagation of religion has persisted ever since [the Hijra] and it remains a large issue in our inter-religious dialogue,’ he writes. Kenneth Cragg implies that the slogan Allahu akbar is denied by Muslims when they refuse to allow God to be ‘greater’ than an omnipotent Lord who creates, guides and forgives. The God of Christian faith is above this kind of greatness, he argues, as His grace and suffering are viewed as averting the punishment warned of by the Prophets. For Christianity, ‘it was a greatness utterly generous in its creative magnanimity and even more so it stooping to “our low estate” in the self-imaging so greatly given in the incarnate and redemptive Messiah Jesus…’

By contrast, he writes, ‘Islam “makes him greatly great” in the benediction of our human guiding into rightness by the textuality of sacred tanzil [revelation] and the summons into obedience by the discipline and the nurture ordained for us in the Qur’an and the Sharia.’ Yet this is simply a case of the author moulding his discussion about Islam into his own framework for the sake of convenience, for Islam actually makes God greatly great by its numerous reflections on the magnificence of the universe He has created. Pondering everything in it from the honeybee to planetary nebulae Allahu Akbar is the natural refrain. In reality Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim could just as easily be the beginning of our theology and if Kenneth Cragg’s paper were put in these terms (in what way is God compassionate and merciful?) the outcome could be quite different. Pushing Islam through his own filter of beliefs, we are left with a confused message, and one that is quite abstract and distant from the reality of life at that. Fortunately his paper is not without rebuttal and Sohail Nakhooda provides a coherent and – thankfully – erudite response.

The second chapter goes on to look at the lessons of history, beginning with an objective paper by David Kerr. Intelligently he chooses to speak as a Christian is his approach without stepping into the Muslim’s shoes to speak on the other’s behalf. He argues that we should see the relationship between Muslims and Christians as a single circle rather than a convergence of two. Mona Siddiqi responds fairly, calling for dialogue to take place in the spirit of genuine honesty on the part of all involved. Presenting the third paper in this chapter, Tarif Khalidi examines the figure of Jesus in Islam with an interesting – if brief – minor history of Muslim views of Christianity. In his view, the figure of Jesus in the Qur’an is very problematic, but he does not develop this, where a review of relevant verses would be useful. Yvonne Haddad’s response is intelligent and useful, with a discussion of dhimma, which seems fair and balanced.

Nasim Hasan Shah begins the third chapter on Communities of Faith with an analysis of Muslim society in Pakistan. Activists are always keen to point out that there are no true Islamic societies today, an argument which misses the point; it is important that we come to terms with the fact that we must deal with contemporary realities not historical ideals. In his response, Henri Teissier asks whether there is clarity in the Qur’anic position on the People of the Book because ‘some Muslims would apparently claim that the positive early verses were later abrogated by more negative verses’ (Qur’an 5:82, 9:29). Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in early Muslim history and Umar ibn al-Khattab’s charter with the Christians of Jerusalem. Evident occasionally in dialogue is an absence of appreciation of the sources of Islamic knowledge, the Christian often referring solely to the Qur’an. Later, Henri Teissier asks, ‘Should not people of faith recognize that religion is not the only factor leading to the moral improvement of humanity.’ The traditional viewpoint of both faiths has been that God defines morality; this question seems to advocate a Christianity that has had Christ washed out of it.

In his paper, Michael Banner considers toleration in the context of Western Christianity and can be commended for making the point that ‘existing under the conditions which obtain in the liberal democracies, Christianity is not called upon to make an active choice for or against toleration of other faiths.’ No Muslim engaged in dialogue could escape the self-satisfaction sometimes expressed by the contemporary Christian when discussing issues of tolerance, particularly in relation to Islam. However, he seems to overemphasise philosophical alternatives in his ‘Toleration: the Augustine alternative’. Why do contributors continuously fail to quote from Holy Scriptures, which, in their daily discourse, are the source of their faith? The absence of any mention of Jesus and what he taught in Michael Banner’s paper is unimpressive, but in any case, given his opening paragraph, what is the relevance of the Augustine alternative?

Writing the final paper in this chapter, Mohamed El-Awa raises a few points worth noting. He is right to say that the time for solving religious differences is the Day of Judgement when the final word will be with God. Secondly, he usefully clarifies the issue of making alliances with enemies. Lastly, he mentions that Christians in particular have always enjoyed a special status, based on the Qur’anic description of them as nearest to the Muslims in affection or love. He gives the example of the Christians of Najran who stayed in the Prophet’s mosque when they visited Madinah. Above all, it is refreshing that this participant refers to Scripture and the teachings of his religion in support if his arguments.

Regrettably the fourth chapter opens with reference to the events of 11 September 2001. David Ford quotes Jonathan Sacks as seeing the terrorist attacks as the greatest challenge to the religions of the world since the wars of religion in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wrong; a genocide which targeted six million Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s was a far greater challenge to the world religions than the attack on the United States, no matter how terrible this surely was, not to mention the conflict in Northern Ireland over the past several decades or in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, David Ford’s paper is not unreasonable and his paper proceeds to cover fair ground. Is he the only Christian participant here who mentions Jesus Christ? This comes through in his ‘Christian faith and change: ten theses.’ Tariq Ramadan, already well informed in matters pertaining to faith and change provides a fair response. Seyed Amir Akrami follows this by arguing that Muslim debate is hindered by its alleged opposition to change. Following this, Christian Troll’s paper offers a critique of Islam, but does not forward views as to how bridges could be built. Once again, the Christian tells us what Islam should be, but fails to tell us about Christianity and what Christians believe.

If throughout this review there seems to be an imbalance, it is finally addressed in the final chapter, Setting the agenda. Rabiatu Ammah begins by arguing very strongly that self-criticism is severely lacking in the contemporary Muslim world. It is about time that there was more analysis of the issues we encounter in a truly honest manner without resorting to the tired refrain that the West is to blame. Christians might benefit from taking this approach as well. One does not have to put aside one’s convictions in order to recognise that communities of the faithful as well as individuals can fall short of their ideals, making mistakes and performing wrong actions. In his response Tarek Mitri expresses a very true sense that ‘Muslims are invited, sometimes in an unfriendly manner, to prove their innocence and that of their religion from the crimes committed by a minority of their co-religionists.’ Fair and objective in nature, this paper could be taken as a summary of the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, likewise, provides us with an impartial summary.

The final paper ties together the different strands of the dialogue quite nicely. In fact, Gillian Stamp hits one aspect on the head: ‘There seemed to be an imbalance in questions,’ she says, reviewing the proceedings, ‘– “the questions are all about Islam, the face of Christianity is covered”.’ She is right. If this is genuine dialogue questions need to be asked equally of the two faiths and it is hard not to be irritated when reading The Road Ahead by the role of a Christian speaking on behalf of Islam. This is not to say that Muslims and Christians should not play their part in analysing and questioning the other’s faith; this would be an exchange of ideas, the very aim of dialogue. She concludes with three possible next stages of the journey, the most important being the challenge of secularism, for this creed is the greatest threat to both religions, than either is to the other.

The Road Ahead concludes with a postscript written by Michael Ipgave, especially relevant in its last few points. God must be remembered, for presumably that is the aim of this dialogue; theological dialogue must be undertaken; and Christians and Muslim should not conceal their convictions. Nobody could argue with his last point: ‘When those who have faith in God meet with an open acknowledgement of their faith, the quality of their meeting is transformed, and together they can change the world.’ It is a pity then that a number of participants did not grasp this. Is this book about dialogue? It is hard to say. Reading The Road Ahead, which lacks any biographical information, I cannot help recalling the Playwright David Hare’s observations in When Shall We Live upon meeting a group of Priests in inner London who barely mentioned their faith whilst undertaking great social works, fearing that ‘stuffing Christ down people’s throats’ would put them off. On his meeting with one South London vicar he wrote:

‘The experience of meeting these good souls left me confused, because although I liked them so much personally – liked them, I suspect, far more than I would ever like their fundamentalist brethren – it did seem to me, as an outsider, that they were perhaps overlooking some essential point about the Christian religion. If Christ did rise from the dead, then call me a fanatic, but I think you probably do have to tell people about it.’

While this book is intended to be all about dialogue, it serves better as an introduction to that modest Christianity which treads the ground so carefully, always conscious of your feelings, but which never addresses the question at hand. Every activist who thinks Swaggart is the typical Christian should read it. TJB

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